You spend time working and then you start rising up the ranks. This is generally the course of most leader’s paths. Naturally along the way there is complex unpredictability but generally speaking it’s a lengthy process. According to a report by DDI from their High Resolution Leadership document, the average number of years of management experience ranges from 12 years (for mid-level leaders) to 18 years (for senior leaders).

We assume that years of experience is a solid indicator of expertise.

But here’s the big question: Does experience actually translate to leadership strength?  We assume that years of experience is a solid indicator of expertise, but is this true in reality and across which leadership skills? The research is quite surprising.

DDI correlated years of management experience with proficiency in 10 key skills. These skills were clustered into three types:

1. High Growth Skills – where experience translates into strength: The skills of driving for results, inspiring excellence and leading teams. High-tenure leaders were nearly four and a half times more likely to be strong in these skills than low-tenure leaders. In other words, new leaders often struggle with these skills and the need to balance goal achievement and team motivation

2. Moderate Growth Skills: The skills of coaching, driving execution and global acumen. High-tenure leaders were just over two and a half times more likely to be strong in this cluster of skills, compared with low-tenure leaders. These skills can be developed but not easily or quickly, and they need plenty of practice.

3. Low or no growth skills – virtually no connection between tenure as a leader and strength: The skills of executive disposition, selling the vision, operational decision making and customer focus. On average high-tenure leaders were just over one and a half times more likely to be strong in these skills compared to their low-tenure counterparts.

Other interesting points to note:

Experience alone doesn’t grow leaders. Only three skills were significantly stronger in high-tenure versus low-tenure leaders. Providing high quality developmental activities for effective on-the-job learning is also critical.

The time taken to become an expert in certain skills varies. For example, this research showed that it takes 1-4 year’s experience to become an expert in Operational Decision Making, but it can take 12-15 years to become an expert on Global Acumen.

The two hardest skills to learn (and that even the most experienced leader needs to perfect) are Coaching and Developing Others and Selling the Vision. These can only really be mastered through sustained focus and extensive support, and the skills may need relearning with each new group of staff and each new strategy.

If there’s one thing to be taken away it’s this: you can become a leader by developing the required skills now, you don’t need experience alone. Amy Gallo from Harvard Business Review reinforces this notion by suggesting that we need to act like leaders long before we become one. Gallo recommends that you:
  • Look for every opportunity to demonstrate leadership potential, at work and outside the workplace;
  • Support your boss in reaching his/her goals;
  • Find people in positions you aspire to and study what makes them successful.


This blog is based on an article published in High Resolution Leadership, by DDI. Andrea's original article can be found on LinkedIn here.
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